Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Under the Skin (2014)

Scarlett Fever
You've Got to be Putting Me On (at the Men's Wearhouse)

All sorts of discomfiture awaits a viewer of Under the Skin, the first film since Birth for director Jonathan Glazer (who also made the discomfiting Sexy Beast). It's a science-fiction tale, maybe a horror film (without the visceral zaps that genre usually provokes) of an alien invasion of Earth, but at no point does the movie indicate that what you're watching is an alien invasion of Earth. There are no military men staring at the skies eyes widening, or men in lab coats sweating over the implications, or, of late, vast armadas of alien-craft spewing energy making explosions in loud flowering fire.  

No, this is is a quiet revolution, done one seduction at a time. And Glazer tells his story with imagery that's obtuse, undramatic, and without any word of explanation. Dialog is of the most banal conversation, and the actions and images are always speaking a lot louder...even if you're not exactly sure what it is you're seeing.

The film starts with the most impenetrable images—a small white dot that mars the perfect blackness of the screen, then expands into a fan of light with halos
, ovoid shapes that slowly approach while the soundtrack—a combination of Mica Levi's creepy score and a female voice intoning sounds that start with consonants and form words—becomes increasing complex, while a handlebar view of a motorcycle rider knifes into view. That motorcycle rider will stop on an abandoned road, disappear over an embankment into the black of night and return with a women's body, limp over his shoulder. He takes it to a nearby van, shuts the door, and next we see a blinding white room where a silhouetted naked female form examines the face, then begins to peel the clothes off it.
Then, the two, the motorcyclist and the woman, (now wearing the other woman's clothes and in the form of Scarlett Johansson) separate, he on the motorcycle, she in the nondescript white van. The film follows her (with a few brief asides with the biker) as she shops for some clothes, cosmetics, and begins driving around.  

She circles around populated areas, then starts to drive at night, looking for stray male pedestrians of whom she asks directions. Then she offers a lift. Most beg off, but the occasional few happily hop in, no doubt thanking their lucky stars. She casually asks what they're doing out so late, do they have any friends around—any family who might miss them—things like that. If they're lone wolves (and more importantly, DUMB lone wolves), she takes them to one of a couple locations—indistinct houses that look innocent enough. But walk inside, and it's completely black inside. The men follow her in. She begins to take off her clothes. They follow, removing theirs.

But, as she walks farther, she stays rooted to the floor. The mesmerized men, however, sink into a black fluid, totally oblivious to it, eyes focused solely on her...until they sink out of sight. Then, alone in the room, she dresses, and leaves.

Now, that is just creepy. We find out what happens to these guys later, and it isn't pleasant. Let's just speculate that they become the guises for others who will be coming to Earth in the future. And so when we meet the enemy, they'll look like that overbearing guy with the corny pick-up line in the bar.

This is a rather nifty spin on the old "body-snatchers" series of alien horror movies, but rather than have the aliens show up as "pods," or some-such, that eventually take on human form, these beings are literally putting us on, taking our skins and wearing them to fit in and "blend."

It's creepy on a literal level. On a metaphorical level (just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a veiled comment on the McCarthy era where familiars turned against each other), there's something else going on. What we have here is a lone female serially preying on men, following and eliminating them, a reversal of the predatory male habits of the world and (reflecting that) the cinema. One might, if one were blinkerdly and sociopathologically ideologically-minded, take some satisfaction in the comeuppance of men being lured to their doom at the hands of a stalking woman (no matter what race she's from), but it's still horrific whether it's done by a man, a woman, an alien, or a terminator. One doesn't (at least shouldn't) get any satisfaction, or jollies, from this. And Glazer's way of presenting it is so sexless and austere, one doesn't get any visceral experience rather than a passing "Well, that's different..." thought.

But, look at it a different way. Maybe it's making a comment that sexual predators, whatever stripe, whatever "bent," are the aliens stalking amongst we, "the normal," demons taking advantage of our better angels. What woman hasn't had those moments of fear, of dread, of imminent attack? What child hasn't experienced the thumping heart-beat of a bully's presence? Maybe what Under the Skin is saying is that we've already been invaded by aliens, ones that merely looks like us, but are not us, who seek our confidence, our trust and turn against us.

If that were the point, the film presents a mixed message, where the very nature of the target proves the attack's undoing (ala The War of the Worlds). But it is nice to see a film told mostly with images, where the viewer is left wandering, trying to figure it out, rather than having E-VER-Y-THING SPELLED OUT until you feel like the movie's been aimed at an audience with the attention span of cats. I just wish the film was a little bit more sophisticated in its aims.

"No, really.  I find you fascinating."

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